BooksOfTheMoon

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch #1)

By Ann Leckie

Rating: 5 stars

The soldier who goes by the name of Breq is in the final stages of plotting revenge when she comes across Seivarden Vendaai, lying naked and dying in the snow. Why she stops to help him is something even she doesn’t know, but he becomes entangled in her own life and the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance.

I really rather loved this book. Breq is something more and something less than human. Her body was once human, but killed and reanimated. Her intelligence is artificial, being the last remaining component of the starship Justice of Toren, trying to make sense of and work with a single body rather than the resources of thousands of its ‘ancillaries’.

Although Breq (or Justice of Toren) is very much the hero of the piece, the book never shies away from the fact that it was a military ship involved in the invasion and subjugation of many civilisations and planets. It’s done terrible things in its time, but in some ways this is a redemption story as well, with Breq trying, in her own way, to make up for her own past actions.

Breq is also a fascinating protagonist. Being part of an AI with multiple bodies, we get a first person narrative, but from multiple points of view, which gives us both the intimacy of a first person narrator, but also the traditional omniscient narrative, as Justice of Toren is seeing all these things at the same time.

At first in the book, I felt a bit thrown off-balance and it took a while to work out why. It was because all the characters that Breq met seemed to be female. It took a while for this to sink in. If they had been male I wouldn’t have even noticed. As far as I’m concerned, this is a good thing – it makes me aware that despite my best efforts, I still have in-built preconceptions, and helps me to try and break through them. In fact, in the story, it’s more interesting than that. The language that Breq thinks in doesn’t make distinction between genders, and the pronoun that she uses is ‘she’ for everyone (and finds it difficult to tell the difference between genders, as the outward signs vary so much between cultures).

Come to think of it, I have no idea if Breq is male or female. She’s referred to as ‘she’ by other characters, but I, think, always in the Radch language, so it’s entirely possible that she’s actually male.

The world-building in the story is really good as well. The civilisation of the Radch, to which JoT belongs, has been expanding for a millennium and eventually met its match with an alien species, and is forced to sue for peace. The Lord of the Radch has, like the ancillaries, thousands of bodies, spread through many star systems, so can always be personally present as the ultimate form of law and justice, meaning that the ‘centre of power’ is always fairly near by, rather than being some distant Rome, and that mind across multiple bodies is played in interesting ways.

So an awful lot in there to think about and digest, but also a really fun space opera with a twist. One of the reasons that I read this book when I did is that it was published in 2013 and I get to nominate and vote in the 2014 Hugo awards. From all I heard, this might be a contender for nomination. From my point of view, it most definitely is.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356502403
Publisher: Orbit UK (Little, Brown Book Group)
Year of publication: 2013

Doomsday Book (Oxford Time Travel, #1)

By Connie Willis

Rating: 4 stars

In 2050s Oxford, time travel is used to send historians back to observe the past first-hand, confident that they can’t alter history. Kivrin is to be sent further back than ever before, to the Medieval period. But a combination of bad luck and disease means that she’s stranded there for longer than she had intended, and she’s not in the 1320s, as she expected, but in Black Death-ridden 1348.

In a quirk of coincidence, I had just finished Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death just before starting this, which gave me some background and understanding of the disease and made me appreciate Willis’ research.

This is a big book. It’s nearly 600 pages long, and it runs at a sedate pace for most of that. Split into three parts internally, the first two are really all about getting to know the characters, from Kivrin in the past, along with the villagers that she comes to live amongst, to Dunworthy in the future, as he runs himself ragged trying to sort out the mistake that stranded her. This slow build up is worth it as in the final part, Willis carefully and clinically starts to use the threads that she’s painstakingly created in the previous four hundred odd pages to take a hatchet to your heart.

The future Oxford that Willis imagines feels closer to the Oxford of the 1950s, not the 2050s, with quaint independent colleges, fussy secretaries and political bickering and point-scoring that sometimes extends into full-blown warfare. It’s also interesting to see how self-absorbed everyone in Oxford is, with Gilchrist’s ambition, the Americans’ bell-ringing, Finch’s obsession with lavatory paper and even Dunworthy’s attempts to get someone to read the time travel machine logs after his tech, Badri, fell ill. They all feel myopic, which is ironic, given the nature of what they’re doing: travelling in time to understand the broad sweep of history.

Kivrin’s adventures are of the small-scale, domestic variety, as she comes to live amongst a family who have been sent away from the city. We get to know them as she does and we get to care for them as she does. And through it all, you’ve got in the back of your mind where and when she is and you hope, as she does, once she finds out the truth, that the plague will pass her village by and spare those whom she cares about.

And as the plague does hit her village, each death is a blow. We find ourselves counting them along with Kivrin, relying on the statistics, that each death is “enough”. And as they keep falling, towards the inevitable, we find ourselves as ragged as Kivrin becomes, raging against fate and any deity that would allow this to happen. The clinical description of Agnes’ death and the final blow of Father Roche in particular are heartbreaking.

A slow but powerful novel that draws out its characters and doesn’t flinch from the brutality of the era.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575131095
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1992

Monstress, Vol. 3: Haven

By Marjorie M. Liu, Sana Takeda

Rating: 4 stars

In the third volume of the incredibly pretty Monstress, Maika and her pals enter yet another city while looking for answers. This time, Zinn, the monster living inside her, pretty much manifests itself whole and remains connected to her only by tendrils. By now it feels like the whole world is looking for Maika, and the constant running is getting a bit exhausting (and I’m just reading).

There’s a focus on Kippa that hasn’t been there before, as she continues to prove that she’s the best, sweetest and kindest character in the whole series. I fear that even if she doesn’t die, her innocence will. The cat, Ren, here is quite interesting. I’m conflicted by him. He’s betrayed Maika in the past, but it’s hinted here that he’s not entirely acting of his own volition and I’ll be interested to see where that goes.

Once again, Maika continues to make poor decisions, and sometimes it feels like she’s a sulky teenager. She’s got the attitude and the manners, although she does also have the strength to rip you limb from limb (quite literally). This, tied to anger management issues, causes a problem. I don’t find her hugely sympathetic, to be honest.

I’m glad that I read the whole three volumes in pretty quick succession, since otherwise I think I would really have struggled with all the different factions, who’s currently betraying whom and who or what is currently possessed by tentacled horrors with too many eyes.

The storytelling and panel layout sometimes felt a little muddled and it took a few reads of a few pages to figure out the structure and what was going on. Despite this, the art remains absolutely stunning and the little comic drawing of Seizi cuddling a young Maika at the back is worth the price alone.

Book details

ISBN: 9781534306912
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of publication: 2018

Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood

By Marjorie M. Liu, Sana Takeda

Rating: 4 stars

The second volume of Monstress is just as lushly illustrated as the first. It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of art. It can also be incredibly violent and grotesque at times as well, so beware, if you have problems with that.

Maika Halfwolf, the fox cub that she rescued in volume one and the cat, Master Ren, have travelled to the pirate city of Thyria in search of answers about Maika’s past and her mother, as well as of the mask fragment that she carries and the monster living inside her. Their search takes them to the Isle of Bones and yet more questions.

I find Maika both inspiringly strong-willed and frustratingly stubborn. She makes poor decisions and fails to make sure of those around her who might offer her aid. And yet, we still feel for her. We learn more about the creature inside her in this volume and we get more of Kippa, who is the innocent caught in the centre of all this. The way things are going, I fear for her, before the series is over. There’s machinations between different political factions and war grows ever closer.

For all its unyielding hardness and its violence, the core story here is intriguing, and the world-building remains excellent. Combined with Sana Takeda’s incredible art, I look forward to the next volume.

Book details

ISBN: 9781534300415
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of publication: 2017

Spinning Silver

By Naomi Novik

Rating: 4 stars

I enjoyed this book a lot, but it did take me longer to get through than I expected, since I kept stopping throughout it, especially early on. It took me a while to figure out why, but I eventually realised that the two main protagonists, Miryem and Irena both end up married against their will (or at least, not actively wanting it) fairly early on, and this is something that touches a nerve with me. It was delicately handled and both women are able to think on their feet and deal with their respective situations. But still.

The blurb on the cover talks only about Irena (the duke’s daughter, who he schemes to marry to the tsar) and Miryem (the moneylender’s daughter, who’s much better at his job than he is, and attracts unwelcome attention because of it), but there are several other PoV characters as well and Novik does an excellent job of differentiating them and making them feel distinct.

Through one of these characters, the peasant girl Wanda, we discover a different kind of magic to that encountered by Miryem or Irena. We discover again the power of literacy and numeracy. Miryem brings Wanda into her household as a servant to help pay off her father’s debt and she teaches her the meanings of the scratches on the paper and how they create credit and debt. We see the magic of literacy through fresh eyes, which reminds us of the immense power that each and every one of us has and barely even realises it. The power to verify the truth, to travel to impossible times and places, to understand and appreciate how long a debt will last. That is magic indeed.

An excellent story, drawing on Novik’s own heritage to create a wonderfully believable setting and all too believable fears of the Jewish residents of the country.

Book details

ISBN: 9781509899043
Publisher: Pan
Year of publication: 2018

Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories

By Naomi Kritzer

Rating: 5 stars

I got this book as part of the Feminist Futures story bundle and it caught my eye because I’d read the title story when it was nominated for a Hugo award a few years ago. I loved the story then, and was pleased that it went on to win the Hugo for short story that year and was happy to revisit it as part of this collection.

I’ll be honest, I haven’t enjoyed a collection of short stories as much as this in a long time. There’s not a story here that didn’t connect with me in some way, although some moreso than others. I’m not going to go through every story in detail, but here are some of the highlights. Ace of Spades deals with themes of changes in modes of warfare, how the reduction in risk that technology brings affects decisions, and second chances, all with a sympathetic protagonist dealing with being dealt a crappy hand by fate. Wind is a story about extremes, about two girls who give up something that provides balance in their lives in exchange for something that they yearn for and then have to live with the consequences. Cleanout deals with three daughters clearing out their mother’s house, after she moves into a home and is a beautiful story of grief, loss and coping.

The Good Son had me in tears as a fey follows a human girl back to America and bewitches an old, childless couple, to think of him as their son, to provide camouflage while he chases the girl. Except he doesn’t realise the implications that creating a family will have for him. This is another beautiful story of what family means and the extents we will go to for those we love. Bits, on the other hand, is a hilarious story about alien refugees and the humans who fall in love with them and then need help to have a, er, full relationship. Sex toys. It’s a story about a firm that creates a line of sex toys to help alien/human couples have sex. And it’s brilliant. The final story in the collection, So Much Cooking is told as a series of blog entries in a cookery blog, at the start of an influenza pandemic and how the author and her family cope with not being able to leave the house (and it’s got some cracking recipes as well).

So having enjoyed this collection immensely, I very much look forward to reading more of Kritzer’s work.

Book details

Publisher: Fairwood Press
Year of publication: 2017

Fables: The Deluxe Edition, Book Five

By Bill Willingham

Rating: 4 stars

The major arc in this volume of the always marvellous Fables series describes Boy Blue’s return to the Homelands on a secret mission. And in the process, he retrieves huge amounts of intelligence, and finally uncovers the identity of the Adversary. Despite hints in previous volumes, I must confess that it took me by surprise, but it totally works (and his description of his rise to power is chilling). And Boy Blue is pretty awesome as a lone hero, cutting a swathe through the Empire on his mission.

Back in Fabletown, we see a delegation of Arabian fables arrive in embassy, and how the European ones struggle to deal with them, as well as seeing just how well, or badly, Prince Charming is dealing with being mayor. Some other old favourites get screen time too (including a surprisingly awesome role for King Cole, who’s been a bit of a comedy side character until now), and there are some surprises in store for others. Snow and her boys appear, but in a side capacity, just driving the plot forward.

Oh, and there’s also the preparation for the spinoff Jack of Fables series, which actually starts the book. I must confess that Jack has never really done an awful lot for me. He’s arrogant, lazy and a bit of a grifter. His escapades in Hollywood were mildly amusing, but I don’t really have any interest in seeking out the spinoff.

So, apart from Jack, another complete success. The whole ‘Adversary’ plot is picking up pace and after five volumes, I’m pretty invested in the major characters. I look forward to the next one now.

Book details

ISBN: 9781401234966
Publisher: Vertigo
Year of publication: 2012

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)

By Martha Wells

Rating: 4 stars

I enjoyed this little novella quite a lot. A friend has raved about the Murderbot books for quite a while and after finally acquiring an ebook reader, I picked this up. Our protagonist is a SecUnit, a cyborg, with a piece of software designed to keep it under control at all times. Murderbot, as it refers to itself, hacked its ‘governor’ but rather than going on a killing spree, it prefers to download and watch serials and other entertainment, while putting minimal effort into its actual job as a security detail, at the moment for a survey team on a planet that may be available for colonisation.

Murderbot is cynical, misanthropic and gets very uncomfortable talking about its feelings. (So it’s British then.) But under that shield of armour and bravado there’s a kind being that wants to protect its humans. And there’s a lot of scope for world-building and in the idea of the ‘Units’, which appear to be sentient, and could be regarded as slaves.

I really like Murderbot as a character and would like to read more about it. Unfortunately, the novella format works against this, as they’re short (easily read in a couple of hours), but priced equivalent to a full length novel (other than the first one, which, I assume, has a lower price to act as a hook). I hope that an omnibus edition appears at some point, as I really want to see what Murderbot does next.

Book details

Publisher: Tor.com
Year of publication: 2017

The Rise of Endymion (Hyperion Cantos, #4)

By Dan Simmons

Rating: 4 stars

Concluding the Hyperion cantos is a tricky job, drawing many threads together and providing some closure, and Simmons mostly does a good job. We pick up five years after Raul Endymion and Aenea found themselves on Old Earth, just as they have to leave. This time Raul is sent out alone to go and look for the Counsel’s ship, that they left on a planet somewhere along the River Tethys while Aenea goes on her own adventures. We follow Raul on his travels, hiding from the Pax and his eventual reunion with Aenea. A neat trick with relativity means that another five years or so have passed for him before the reunion, making her in her early twenties before the relationship foretold in the previous book happens, and so making the whole thing somewhat less creepy.

There are several points in the book where Aenea, now in full One Who Teaches mode, stops to provide several pages of exposition. This slows the book down a lot and it feels clunky to hear someone ask “Tell us about the Farcasters”, or whatever, and have an infodump thrown at the reader. I wish that a better way could have been found to handle that.

It’s also sometimes tricky to keep various versions of a story in my head at once. “So the Cantos said this about it, the Core says that, and now Aenea is saying the other.” Trying to remember all the different versions so that I could reconcile them in my head was sometimes tricky.

The Core comes out of this as the real villains, along with certain individuals in the Church who can’t see beyond their own greed. I’m left feeling almost sorry for Lenar Hoyt, now the Pope, who seems like a very weak character, who is entirely led by other people, and by the Core. It feels like a weakness that the final resolution seems to pretty much leave the Core out entirely. We never find out what happens to it, but I suppose there have to be some mysteries left over. And speaking of mysteries, the Shrike retains some of its mystery. We find out more about it, but the core (to me) item of why it was created and why it changed sides in the last book are still not clear.

Also, something that bugged me from early on was the revelation that Father Duré from the first books was still “alive”, in that he and Hoyt shared a body and each time Hoyt died and Duré was resurrected, he was killed by the Church to allow Hoyt to return. But Duré’s cruciform was cut from him by the Shrike in Fall of Hyperion, while in the Labyrinth (I flipped through the book to make sure I wasn’t imagining it, and I wasn’t). Since it’s never explained, I guess this is just a plot hole, but I would have thought that any beta-readers would have picked up on it (either that, or I missed something pretty important).

Definitely better than its predecessor, but perhaps not quite matching the first two books of the cantos, it’s worth reading to finish the story. Oh, and if I ever write a sequel to my blog post on big dumb objects, the Startree is definitely going on the list.

Book details

ISBN: 9780553572988
Publisher: Spectra
Year of publication: 1997

The Fall of Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #2)

By Dan Simmons

Rating: 4 stars

The Fall of Hyperion picks up pretty much from where Hyperion left off. We open with a young man going under the name of Joseph Severn being invited to a major party on the governing world of Tau Ceti Centre, to celebrate the departure of the fleet that will take back the world of Hyperion from the Ousters. We see much of the novel through Severn’s eyes, and through them, we also find out what happened to the pilgrims of the original novel.

The scope of this book is absolutely huge. It spans time and space, it covers the rise and potential fall of gods and still has time to deal with the minutiae of human life, and this makes it extremely an compelling read. For me, it really put the ‘opera’ into ‘space opera’. It has the huge scope and wide brush strokes that I associate with classical opera, and also, to be honest, has that thing where the plot doesn’t entirely makes sense but you get so swept up in it that you hardly notice. It also has a mixture of a huge sense of loss combined with a great change that changes everything. Whether for better or worse, is left in the air.

So a compelling book, with satisfying conclusions to the stories of most of the pilgrims, especially Sol Weintraub and his daughter, Rachel and one that expands the scope of the story in a satisfying way.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575099487
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1990

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